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First African Baptist Church

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Found on Franklin Square, the First African Baptist Church is the oldest black church in North America. Founded by slaves in 1775, it has a history nearly as old as Savannah itself.

First African Baptist Church

From the outside, the church isn’t terribly impressive, but that changes once you step indoors. The interior is beautiful, with curved pews pointing towards the pulpit and a pair of upper balconies for busy days. The church was built by the charity and volunteer efforts of slaves who, as you might imagine, didn’t have much extra money or free time. But over the course of four years, they got the job done, coming straight from their regular labor to work through the night on the construction of this church.

Our tour was fascinating, and our guide seemed to have a never-ending series of anecdotes, which demonstrated that the First African Baptist Church was much more than it seemed.

For example, the church was built with a secret floor underneath its real floor, and operated as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Never discovered by authorities, the crawlspace hid hundreds of runaway slaves and a tunnel led them from the church to the Savannah River. To mask their true purpose, the floor’s breathing holes were bored in the shape of the Kongo Cosmogram: an African spiritual symbol often used by American slaves.

Kongo Cosmogram

Another secret in the church is found in its ceiling, which looks rather plain at first glance, like waffle squares. But theses squares represent the Nine-Patch Quilts, which served as beacons for indicating safe houses to slaves on the run, and so the ceiling is a clever tribute to the church’s hidden humanitarian purpose.

Also, on the ends of each pew, all of which are original and date back hundreds of years, the wavy lines of cursive Hebrew have been scratched into the wood. Our guide wasn’t able to translate any of the words, but he did tell us that a few Ethiopian tourists had visited recently and instantly recognized it. Apparently, it’s still used by Jewish communities in Africa.

Kongo Cosmograms, Underground Railroad Patchwork, Cursive Hebrew… now this is the kind of unexpected history which totally interests me! If you’re the same, make sure to visit the First African Baptist Church, either for the tour or for the Sunday service.

First African Baptist Church – Website
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January 14, 2011 at 1:31 pm Comments (7)

Old Town Trolley Tours

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Hey, you know what Savannah has plenty of? Tours. Carriage tours, walking tours, hearse tours, haunted tours, pub tours, haunted pub tours, Civil War tours, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil tours.

Best Trolley Tour in Savannah

Hold on, I’m just getting started! Black history tours, Girl Scout tours, dolphin tours, gates and gardens tours, Paula Deen tours. And trolley tours. Lord, are there trolley tours. There are more trolleys than cars in Savannah. There are more trolleys than blades of grass! Yesterday, I got hit by a trolley on the street and another trolley rushed me to the hospital, which was itself inside a trolley. The Hospital Trolley Tour. It’s awesome, check it out.

So we’ve done a few trolley tours. How could we not? I won’t mention the less impressive ones: the dumpy ones with plastic covering the windows, you know who you are. If you’re planning on taking a tour in Savannah, hunt down the Old Town Trolley. They’re orange and green, and impossible to miss. The tour is a little more expensive than some of the others, but worth the extra money.

The trolleys have sparkling clean glass windows, none of this plastic nonsense, and the driver we had managed to be both interesting and legitimately funny. Often, these tour guides rely upon the same old corny jokes… but Savannah seems to have its share of colorful and amusing folks, and at least some of them work for Old Town Trolley.

The tour is long and comprehensive; perfect for people who don’t have all that much time in the city, and want to see as much as possible in one shot. You can hop and and off as often as you want during the day, so it’s an easy way to navigate Savannah’s deceptively large historic district.

Location on our Map
Book here and receive a discount: Old Trolley Tours

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January 12, 2011 at 8:54 pm Comment (1)

Seeing Savannah’s Evil Side from a Hearse

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What could be better than touring Savannah in a hearse with a raised roof, so you can poke your head out the top? Nothing comes immediately to mind, does it? I mean, a ghost tour in a tricked-out hearse is kind of like the pinnacle of human culture.

Ghost Tour Savannah

I didn’t know what to think the first time I saw this bizarre vehicle cruising around Savannah’s squares at night. The passengers seemed to be having a grand time, drinking out of to-go cups, gawking at old mansions, and completely oblivious to my baffled staring. “On the one hand,” I thought, “that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen.”

“On the other hand, my parents are totally going to love it.”

So when my parents came to visit, I booked spots on the Hearse Tour, arranging for a pick-up outside the Pirate’s House. What ensued was an entertaining trip around Savannah’s dark side. Our guide was completely into her character as spooky chauffeur, and her enthusiasm for the supernatural was contagious. There wasn’t a dull moment; a lot of houses in Savannah have some story of fright, whether a horrific crime or an unexplained phenomena. A lot of the tales were new to me, and I felt chills when we went by the old psychiatric hospital on Abercorn. It might have been the booze, but I swear I saw the outline of a face in one of the hospital windows.

The Hearse Tour isn’t exactly inconspicuous. I lost count of how many pedestrians laughed at us, yelling “Oooooooh, spooooky!” But if you’re able to tune out the mockery, it’s a great time, especially if you’ve got an interest in the supernatural.

Official Website

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil Tour for only $13.50

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December 31, 2010 at 3:38 pm Comments (5)

The Owens Thomas House – Our First Bad Experience in Savannah

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We had been excited to get into the old homes of Savannah, especially after our experience at the Scarborough House. So it was with high expectations that we visited the Owens-Thomas House on Oglethorpe Square. Unfortunately, our high expectations weren’t met, this time.

Owens Thomas House

Let’s start with the good. This house built by architect William Jay house is a masterpiece, with design elements I’ve never seen before, such as a bridge connecting the two halves of the upper floor. It was one of the first houses in America with running water, and every room has been designed with timeless elegance. Plus, the house has been remained in excellent shape. The price is initially shocking, at $20 per head, but when you consider that it includes entrance to the three sites of the Telfair Museum for a week, it becomes less outrageous.

Moving onto the bad. The first, and least understandable, problem was the unfriendliness of the ticket sellers, who treated us with an attitude that approached open contempt. It wasn’t just us; they were equally rude to the group behind us. “There are NO pictures inside!” Fine, okay. “I mean it, absolutely NO PICTURES! Not even with your phones!” I was shocked that we were being yelled at before we’d even done anything wrong.

Our tour began in the carriage house with a little history, and then we moved into the main residence, were we encountered Problem #2: our group was sandwiched between two other groups. The people ahead of us were moving too slowly, and those behind us was advancing too quickly. Our guide often became flustered, not knowing what to do with us, and we were repeatedly shoved through rooms before having a chance to properly admire them.

Problem #3: the guide, while pleasant enough, was obviously not an expert in the history of the Owens-Thomas House. As long as she stuck to the script, she was fine, but when (god forbid) we had a question, she was almost always at a loss. For example, this was an actual exchange:

“Please admire the fine engraving on the fireplace, which was based on a famous myth.”

“Interesting! What myth is that?”

“You know, that’s a good question. I have no idea, but it is a very famous myth”.

While we were waiting on the group ahead of us to move on, she would just stand there in uncomfortable silence, having exhausted the four factoids she had about, say, the kitchen. Even when we’d prompt her (“Who is that a portrait of?”), her awkward responses made us feel bad. Eventually we stopped putting her on the spot.

The worst moment came while we were viewing the balcony from which the Marquis de Lafayette, a hero of the Revolutionary War, once gave a famous speech. She described how he spoke “of liberty and freedom, and these things that…” And now, she turned her attention to Jürgen, whom she knew to be German. “As an outsider, you have to understand that the concepts of Freedom and Liberty are very important to us Americans.” I almost died, although Jürgen was able to answer with a grin. “Liberty? But vas ist das, mein Fräulein?”

The Owens-Thomas House could offer a rich experience, but the staff needs to get its act together. The docents should study up, the ticket ladies should take an etiquette course, and customers who’ve just paid $20 should not be rushed through. From reading online reviews, I don’t think our experience was a fluke. It’s a missed opportunity for the city.

Location on our Savannah Map

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November 26, 2010 at 9:58 am Comments (16)
First African Baptist Church Found on Franklin Square, the First African Baptist Church is the oldest black church in North America. Founded by slaves in 1775, it has a history nearly as old as Savannah itself.
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